Knicks Zone Slows Down Hornets

The best thing to come out of this game might be a new Jordan Meme.

The Hornets owner, greatest basketball player of all time and noted Knick killer put his hand over his face and shook his head as he watched his team give up an early 21-point lead, get outscored 27-10 during a stretch of the fourth quarter and succumb to a zone defense that was clearly a last resort option for Knicks coach David Fizdale.

“We were kind of lost on offense,” Hornets forward Nic Batum admitted, “because we really didn’t face a zone defense this year.”

Fizdale and the coaching staff employed the 2-1-2 zone in the second half after the Knicks defense was shredded by Charlotte’s pick-and-roll offense in the first half to a 72-53 deficit. The Hornets whipped the ball around the court with relative ease against the scrambling Knicks defense for 20 assists and hit 12 of 20 from three-point range. The zone slowed down the Hornets dribble penetration and led to far fewer rhythm threes. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Mudiay, who had just 5 points at the half, started to attack Kemba Walker in the second half.

The 6-5 guard, who wound up being the only healthy point guard left after Frank Ntilikina departed the game with a mild ankle sprain, poured in nine points in the third quarter and then went for 14 points in the fourth. By the time he made a layup off a curl cut on an out-of-bounds play with 17 seconds left in overtime to give the Knicks a 126-121 lead, Mudiay had a career-high 34 points.

“We kept fighting,” Mudiay said. “The defensive end, that’s what got us going on the offensive end.”

The Knicks were outscored by 24 points from the three-point line, but they scored 28 points off 16 turnovers by the Hornets. It was another one of those wild comebacks by the Knicks — it seems we get one a week from this team, though not all end in wins — with the trend of falling behind early only to battle back and make it a game.

That’s the thing about this year’s Knicks, they may be 9-21, but you really never should turn off the TV. Anything can happen.

I love these kids,” Fizdale said. “They never cease to amaze me. Both ways, trust me. They do some stuff where I say, ‘What are they doing?’ and then they do stuff like this where they don’t quit.”

They also seem to get production from the most random places on a given night. In this game, it was Luke Kornet, the seldom-used big man who saw big minutes when Mitchell Robinson went down with an ankle injury. Kornet became a critical piece in the middle of the zone and nailed three three-pointers — one that put the Knicks up 109-108 with 1:40 to go in regulation — as he played pretty much the last 20 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Kornet finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. And he received this compliment from Mudiay after the game:

“People don’t know, man, this guy is one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever been around. He just knows the game, he knows how to play. Always staying ready. He’s always in the gym, before and after everybody. To see him have a game like this means a lot.”

It’s a testament to the team’s focus on player development that these type of performances are emerging from players who aren’t even in the rotation most nights. So the record may not reflect it, but there is something developing here.

Lost in all of this was another 20-point performance by Kevin Knox, who had 17 in the first half and added 3 rebounds, 3 assists a steal and a block along with 3 for 6 from downtown. The issue was going 0 for 5 in the second half and missing two clutch free throws that could have iced the game with 4 seconds left, but you also saw him adjust off some defensive mistakes — Jeremy Lamb beat him backdoor once when he was caught ball-watching and later his awareness took that option away — to show he is still learning on the job.

Also of note, Noah Vonleh, 23, came three assists shy of a triple double (15 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, with +8 in 41:51).

“The young guys are getting better,” Fizdale said before the game. “It doesn’t show in the wins, but when we watch that film, we see the things we’ve been working on with these guys and they’re taking those steps. That’s the big thing.”


– Robinson injured his right ankle in the first half when he came down on a rebound and landed awkwardly while being bumped by Frank Kaminsky. Just before that he caught a vicious one-handed alley-oop. Robinson had an x-ray taken and it came up negative, but there will be further testing once the team gets to Indiana for Sunday’s game against the Pacers. Robinson has had ankle issues earlier this season when he missed some time with a left ankle. Fizdale said Robinson’s susceptibility to rolling his ankle while landing was something the team would need to work on with him so he can avoid these issues.

– Ntilikina suffered what Fizdale called a “mild sprain” in his ankle after he dove for a loose ball in the first half and had a Hornets player roll up on his leg, similar to what you’d see in the NFL. He tried to stay in the game but after halftime he was taken out of the lineup. With no Trey Burke or Allonzo Trier available — and Ron Baker cut to make room for Trier’s NBA contract — this seemed like a game where Ntilikina would get extensive playing time at the point guard spot. But the ankle injury limited him to just 14:42. He had 3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist with two turnovers and was -8.

– Three-point defense is still a MAJOR issue that no zone defense will be able to fix. After giving up 20 of 48 shooting to the Hornets, the Knicks now own the fourth-worst three-point defense in the NBA. They allow opponents to shoot 36.9% from downtown. Over the last 8 games, the Knicks are yielding 39.6% on threes to opponents and almost 14 threes made per game. A bulk of this is the result of kick-out threes, which comes from pick-and-roll defense that struggles because once the guard is halted in the screen, the Knicks bigs — mostly Enes Kanter — cannot stop the dribble penetration. Once help arrives, the entire defense breaks down.

– Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2 points in 15:59) was once a No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft out of Kentucky (right after Kentucky teammate Anthony Davis). His career has been littered with injuries and rare flashes of offense. But for the most part, with a 9.1 ppg average for his career and 25.5% shooting from three as a 6’7″ wing, plus when you consider the players chosen after him in that draft — Bradley Beal (3), Damian Lillard (6), Andre Drummond (9) and Draymond Green (35th) — this was a regrettable pick by Charlotte. It begs the question: do you draft for defense and believe you can teach offense or is it better to draft offense and believe you can teach defense?

– This wildly entertaining and most improbable win ended what was an 8-game losing streak for the Knicks in Charlotte. Their last win here was Nov. 8, 2013 . . . when the home team was still known as the Bobcats. Seriously. The Bobcats.